World Water Day: How the WASH landscape has changed in the COVID era

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COVID-19 has shone a spotlight on the gaps in WASH. Photo by:

COVID-19 has significantly changed the project and funding landscape for water, sanitation, and hygiene, and will continue to do so, experts say.

“It’s going to be a world that’s less likely to tolerate the gaps in water and sanitation coverage that we still see in the world today,” Jonathan Wiles, senior vice president at Living Water International said. There’s likely to be a higher level of interest, awareness, and commitment from those who have the ability to influence the WASH sector both from the funding and project point of view, he added.

According to UNICEF, 2.2 billion people still can’t access safe drinking water while 3 billion lack hand-washing facilities with soap. Until vaccines are widespread, clean water and sanitation — alongside social distancing and mask-wearing — remain the most effective weapons against COVID-19.

“COVID-19 has really shone a light on the importance of accessing water for handwashing and to have toilets so you don’t have to go out to public facilities where you’re standing in line and putting yourself at risk,” said Nicole Wickenhauser, director of strategic alliances at

Whether the renewed attention to this cross-cutting issue has translated into increased funding and project commitments is unclear. So far little hard data is available. The next WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Program for WASH update will use data from 2019 surveys for its 2021 report and expects a weak dataset from 2020 households because of lockdowns. And UN-Water’s next Global Analysis and Assessment of Sanitation and Drinking-water won’t be ready until 2022.

“It’s about treating WASH in the same way we’d treat health or education.”

— For Patrick Moriarty, CEO, IRC WASH

“It is hard to get an idea of how hand hygiene or WASH service provision was prioritized in light of medical needs, like personal protective equipment, diagnostics, oxygen, and now of course vaccines,” said Bruce Allan Gordon, WASH team leader at the World Health Organization. Despite huge efforts by many, Gordon said there’s been “sub-optimal recognition and inclusion of WASH services” in overall COVID-19 response planning and budgeting.

Through the funding lens

But Pritha Hariram, business development manager at the Dutch development bank, FMO, believes WASH NGOs have been able to leverage the pandemic to make the case for more increased access to WASH. “Funders … are hearing what the sector wants and needs and are probably skewing toward making funding available,” she told Devex.

In Malawi, the country’s education minister committed part of $6 million earmarked for school reopenings to drilling boreholes and procuring soap. And in Brazil, the International Finance Corporation has allocated part of its $6.4 billion budget for 2021 to 2023 for water and waste management systems.

Elsewhere, overseas development assistance has been cut as economies buckle under the strain of the pandemic. Data shows a $904.3 million reduction in official development assistance toward water and sanitation from bilateral donors between 2019 and 2020. Calling this worrying and disturbing, Catarina de Albuquerque, CEO of Sanitation and Water for All, said some of its partner countries, including Côte d’Ivoire, Gambia, Costa Rica, have reported drops in budgetary allocations for certain components of WASH.

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Investment from international financial institutions did however rise by $2.4 billion and in certain countries, including Zimbabwe, de Albuquerque said there was an increase for WASH in 2021 national budgets. has experienced both increases and decreases in funding. The initial stages of the pandemic, Wickenhauser said, brought funding for COVID-19 relief efforts. This translated into more flexibility in grants, the acceleration of donor payments, and the creation of new grants.

Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter and Square, recently donated $4.7 million to through his COVID-19 #StartSmall philanthropic initiative. Skoll Foundation quadrupled its grant-making for 2020. Kohler and DigDeep launched a microgrant program for local entrepreneurs and community groups with innovative ideas around the provision of clean water and sanitation in the Navajo Nation. “Other companies like Microsoft, Amazon, Target, and Adobe have all recently prioritized water access through their support of us in new ways,” Wickenhauser added.

Yet at the same time, the loss of business for certain corporations has affected their ability to give grants, she said.

On a practical level

Aside from possible fluctuations amid WASH funding, the ways in which activities are conducted — as with other sectors — have also shifted. “Our methods during COVID-19 have changed by necessity,” Wiles said, citing Whatsapp awareness campaigns and mobilization meetings via zoom. “That brings major challenges but opens up new opportunities.”

For example, community leaders facing challenges related to their water systems can now consult those beyond their immediate area through technology. “Anecdotally we’re seeing an acceleration in ubiquity and affordability of technology,” Wiles said, explaining that this will impact the level of access and penetration of certain markets with health messaging.

But, Wiles warned, there will still be people without access and this could exacerbate inequalities if not considered.

For Patrick Moriarty, CEO of IRC WASH, the “fast and loose promises'' made by some countries at the start of the pandemic to provide free water will bring repercussions and put many utilities under further strain. This could indeed jeopardize water access for many.

In Africa, 11 governments pledged various forms of free or discounted water, deferred the payment of bills, or suspended any disconnection of water supply. Elsewhere, governments including Bahrain, Bolivia, and Togo followed suit.

Moriarty said sector reform and the building of national systems capable of delivering basic services is needed. This, he said, was needed prior to the pandemic but COVID-19 is a lens in which to push it forward.

“It’s about treating WASH in the same way we’d treat health or education,” he said, adding that historically there’s been too much of an emphasis on infrastructure. “Nobody thinks building a classroom delivers improved education outcomes. Everybody understands that there’s an education system with teachers, classrooms, curriculum development. That understanding has been notably lacking in WASH.”

To remedy this, Moriarty said it’ll be important to double down on the importance of WASH as a public health intervention and use the profile it’s received throughout the pandemic to lift the sector’s profile among decision-makers. “[It’s] using COVID as an entry point to opening up support, financing for, and leadership of deeper sector reform processes, which are essential if we're to deliver the SDGs,” Moriarty said.

In practice, this means communicating into electoral campaigns, engaging ministries of health and education, and using evidence to show that with a reasonable investment in sector reform it can be more effective and efficient in its use of public money.

Looking ahead

Although conjuring a mixed bag of responses and repercussions in the WASH space, COVID-19 has shone a spotlight on the gaps in WASH yet as vaccine rollout continues, some worry it could take a backseat on the political agenda.

Already Sustainable Development Goal 6 on water and sanitation has not been included as a topic area at the upcoming High Level Political Forum 2021, the theme of which is SDGs needed to build back from COVID-19. “While we in the global north are talking about vaccine, vaccine, vaccine… we are also influencing the news in the south with vaccine, vaccine, vaccine,” de Albuquerque said. While equitable access to vaccines is important, access to WASH cannot be forgotten, she added.

But the messaging accompanying vaccine rollout — on the need for continued social distancing and hand hygiene — combined with the knowledge it may not be 100% efficacious, means Hariram thinks it won’t slip down the priority list.  The fear of another pandemic will also trigger continued support, she added.

“COVID-19 won’t be forgotten quickly,” Hariram said. And more mention of WASH in the public domain and at events such as the World Economic Forum, wouldn’t hurt, she said.

“As a WASH sector we need to reach up and reach out,” de Albuquerque said, meaning those beyond the immediate sector — leaders in other sectors, heads of state, and finance ministers — must be connected with and convinced to embrace WASH. “With this combination, I hope we will build the political will for WASH.”

About the author

  • Amruta Byatnal

    Amruta Byatnal is an Associate Editor at Devex based in New Delhi. She reports on global health, gender and human rights. Previously, she worked for News Deeply and The Hindu. She is a graduate of Cornell University where she studied international development.